As numerous surveys make clear, America’s trust in higher education institutions continues to decline, a sentiment that is coming from all political directions. The chaos on college campuses across the country in response to pro-Palestinian encampments, leading to conflict with police, student and faculty arrests, and canceled commencements, will further erode the public’s support. These events have highlighted the tensions on campuses between commitments to free speech and the right to peaceful protest and policies protecting against harassment and discrimination. My read of the Department of Education’s recent Dear Colleague letter, meant to clarify these issues, only reinforced the difficulty that college and university leaders are facing in balancing these commitments. The letter avoided addressing some of the most challenging questions posed by Congress to university presidents, confirming the lack of a clear delineation between free speech and harassment and discrimination.

College and university leaders and the higher education community need to continue wrestling with the gray areas since these tensions are likely to continue. While many encampments are already gone, and more will go away over the summer, the unrest on college campuses is likely to continue into the fall with the upcoming presidential election, which is sure to be contentious given the political divide in our country at the moment.

Even before the encampments and the current campus chaos, however, the declining trust in higher education was worrying because both the right and the left agree that higher education is not living up to expectations for serving the public good. President Biden has called for accreditors to hold higher education institutions more accountable, while red states are passing anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) legislation. For those of us who have committed our working lives to higher education, the lack of trust and the legislative tactics are beyond frustrating because we know colleges and universities do support the public good. Three major trends taking place over the last several decades, long before October 7 and the Israel-Gaza War, explain much of the decline in trust and why colleges and universities have scant goodwill to fall back on as they deal with the current crises. While colleges and universities may have little ability to impact the course of events in the Middle East, they can address these other longer-term trends and begin to regain the public’s trust.

First, higher education continues to bestow significant benefits on those who earn a degree, yet costs have gone up significantly and graduation rates are inconsistent across colleges and universities. Those who graduate still realize a return on investment, but not finishing places significant risk on families and students. Even as the Biden administration has done much to address student debt, the remaining loan burdens for students who started but didn’t attain a degree are a significant source of mistrust. To regain trust, colleges and universities should focus on reducing costs, allocating aid based on need not merit, and addressing the causes within their control of students dropping or stopping out. Many colleges and universities are doing precisely this, and others could embrace similar changes. The City University of New York improved student retention and graduation rates through its ASAP program, and others are now adopting similar programs. Eight institutions in Northeast Ohio are experimenting with a program to bring back former students who have institutional debt, a program that is now scaling to other states. Some institutions with high graduation rates have increased their shares of Pell Grant students, as evidenced in a report from the American Talent Initiative, and are supporting them with need-based aid and services to ensure their graduation rates are as high as their peers. And, the new federal income-based repayment program goes a long way to protect students whose investments in higher education have not yielded high earnings.

Second, institutional concerns about diversity, equity and inclusion, even as they are well-meaning and responsive to trends in American society, have garnered a destructive backlash. Institutions put DEI programs in place because they recognize that it is significantly more difficult for students to succeed if they do not feel like they belong. But, because much of the motivation in many places came from concerns about racism, other groups felt excluded or stigmatized. As antisemitic incidents increase on campuses, some critics accuse DEI efforts themselves of bias. If inclusion efforts had been more consistently focused beyond race and ethnicity, the pushback might have been less severe. For instance, in addition to doing more to successfully educate traditionally-aged students, colleges and universities could expend more energy to recruit other under-represented groups. Adult learners, enlisted veterans, and incarcerated learners all would benefit from greater attention from colleges and universities. Again, some colleges and universities are leading the way. Cornell University, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University have all increased the number of veterans on campus while designing programs to support them. With the restoration of Pell Grants for incarcerated students, an increasing number of colleges and universities are offering programs in prisons. Increasing the retention and graduation of populations with historically lower overall educational attainment through policies focused on inclusion is not just a benefit to these students. It contributes to state attainment goals and supports the demand on the part of employers and the economy for a more skilled workforce.

Third, in the effort to be more inclusive, commitments to free speech have been strained in ways that call into question this key principle of the academic mission of colleges and universities. This trend is of course most closely related to current events on campuses across the country and what some see as different standards for what constitutes harassment and discrimination. This in turn has led to calls for curtailing free speech from a variety of directions. But doing so will not restore trust in higher education institutions or support the pursuit of knowledge that is core to the academic mission of colleges and universities. The ability to state one’s views freely depends on protecting those rights for all—including those whose positions some campus communities find abhorrent—and confronting one’s critics with debate and not censorship. While the nature of the public debate outside of campus, including proposed legislation, makes this more complicated, some institutions are making progress. Bard College’s Center for the Study of Hate can show others a path forward. Ensuring speakers get to speak is a must, however challenging. Colleges and universities across the country are recommitting to doing so, in some cases at significant cost.

Declining trust puts colleges and universities at risk. They rely on the public’s support, not just in the form of federal and state financial support, but families’ willingness to entrust their children to these institutions at great personal financial sacrifice in many cases. To restore this fraying trust, colleges and universities need to go on the offensive. Broadcast successes and double down on those issues most important to the public. Continue to address the cost of attendance and improve graduation rates. Make sure all students feel welcome through supportive programs. Demonstrate the commitment to free speech and call out those who question its value, most importantly current students. Absent these changes, colleges and universities will continue to experience the public’s declining trust, at great risk to their missions of serving the public good.